How did partnership lose its lustre?

The high-flying associate, brimming with ambition, has always pursued the same goal: to make partner. Until now. The current generation of associates has seen what it takes to succeed at the top. And it looks pretty awful
Partnership feature

DANIEL HOLDEN’S FATHER, A LONG-TIME PARTNER AT GOWLING WLG, ACTIVELY DISCOURAGED HIS SON FROM FOLLOWING IN HIS FOOTSTEPS AND BECOMING A LAWYER. “I think he was worried I’d end up in his situation, where he felt an incredible amount of pressure and the main metric was how many hours he could bill,” Holden says. “That’s a tough environment. And it’s a really tough way to live.” Holden took his father’s advice. As an undergrad at McGill University, he stayed away from the legal field, choosing, instead, to study English, philosophy and women’s studies.

But as graduation neared, he couldn’t figure out how to turn his degree into a career. His mind drifted toward law. “I realized that there were a lot of parallels between what I had been studying and the law,” he says. “You start with incredibly complicated material and try to carve a path through it.”

He took the plunge. Holden enrolled in law school at the University of Toronto and, quickly, found the prospect of legal practice to be an exciting one. “It’s a rare profession where you have such a direct impact on people’s lives,” he says. “Most people don’t need a lawyer most of the time, but, when they do, they are in a position where they really need help.”

Holden articled at Bennett Jones LLP, and he was soon hired back as an associate in the litigation department. His career on Bay Street got off to a terrific start. In his first year at the firm, he exceeded his annual target of 2,000 billable hours. “But then the calendar tipped over to January,” he says. “I realized I would have to do all that work over again. I went home that night and said to my wife, ‘I don’t think I can do this long term.’” His father’s warning had come to fruition.

Partnership Mountain

As few as 15 or 20 years ago, someone in Holden’s position — a promising litigator who loved the law — would have stomached the high stress and the long hours to reach the ultimate goal: partnership. That was the only option for someone who wanted to build a dynamic career, packed with cutting-edge legal work.

This is no longer the case. For the first time — ever, perhaps — there are alternative career paths that offer just as much excitement. Top-tier associates at the largest firms have started to weigh their options and wonder, Why on earth would I want to make partner?

HOLDEN DIDN’T WASTE ANY TIME. He began looking for a new job immediately after his New Year’s epiphany. By the fall, he’d found an in-house counsel job at Kellogg’s Canada. And a year and a half later, he joined Nestlé Canada, where he happily remains today as the company’s general counsel. Not only does he quarterback the company’s complete portfolio of legal work — from real estate to environmental compliance — but he is also part of the executive team that shapes its overall business strategy. “I discovered I’m really passionate about business,” he says. “It’s a great moment when you realize you found a calling.”

His story is not a unique one. “I’ve seen an increase in the number of people who look at partnership and say, ‘Nah, that’s not what I want,’” says Emily Lee, a co-founder of Alt Recruitment Partners in Toronto. “This is definitely a new trend. If you go back two decades, everyone wanted to gun for partnership.” Associates understood that partners worked uber-long hours, but, in exchange, they received meaningful work, prestige and, of course, lots of money. And that looked like a pretty attractive deal.

But the current generation of lawyers has a different opinion. For one thing, the memory of the financial crisis still looms large. “There are some associates who, once they’re on the cusp of partnership, ask, ‘Do I really want to invest in this firm? Is this firm going to be stable and solid?’” says Lee. “It’s been a slow, but steady, evolution.”

There are also associates who, much like Holden, find the lifestyle of most partners off-putting. “They’re looking at how hard the partners have to work to maintain their clients and to generate new work,” says Lee. “They no longer see the draw. They think, I value other things in my life, and I would like to explore other options.”

One of those options is to move in-house. To give up on partnership in favour of a corporate counsel role was once considered an act of failure — an admission that you just couldn’t hack it in private practice, so you decided to throw in the towel. But that stigma is no longer so pervasive.

Partnership boulderSo what’s happened? For one thing, in-house departments have started to balloon in size. Over the past decade, the number of in-house lawyers in Ontario has risen from 3,600 to 5,100. That 42-percent uptick in human resources has allowed in-house teams to take on the kind of complex work — major litigation, internal investigations, corporate transactions — that, in previous decades, they would have farmed out to external counsel. “There are now some amazing work opportunities outside of private practice,” says Lee. “That wasn’t often the case 20 years ago.”

Holden’s current role helps to illustrate this point. And so, too, does the career arc of Greg McLean. In 2018, as a sixth-year associate in the competition group at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, he started to question his future at the firm. On one hand, he loved the work, and his higher-ups had encouraged him to consider partnership. “But I didn’t love the lifestyle,” says McLean. “The billable-hour model is a very useful way to drive revenue, but I didn’t want that never-ending hustle on my plate.” So, he decided to leave private practice.

His challenge, then, was to find a new job that offered the same level of excitement. And, within the year, he’d landed at TD Bank. “I’m on the regulatory legal team, working on competition law, economic sanctions and anti-money laundering,” says McLean. “It’s a great place, and I’m really enjoying it.”

THE LARGEST FIRMS ON BAY STREET ARE WISE TO THIS TREND. It would be hard not to notice as a growing number of associates shudder at the thought of partnership and, as a result, decide to abandon private practice altogether. And so, most firms have had to think creatively to retain their top talent.

One partial solution has been to offer counsel positions to partner-averse associates. The counsel role, in essence, mimics the in-house working experience. It has all the benefits of a dynamic career in private practice, but it doesn’t come with aggressive targets for billable hours and business development. “Firms are trying very hard to strike the correct balance,” says Adam Lepofsky, the president and founder of RainMaker Group, a legal recruitment firm. “I’ve never seen firms take associates off the partnership track and into counsel roles as often as they are today. But they don’t have a choice if they want to retain some of their best people.”

To prevent their juniors from jumping ship, the largest law firms in the city have also increased associate compensation. For more than a decade, first-year associates on Bay Street had earned between $100,000 and $105,000. But over the past two years, most large firms have bumped this number up to $110,000. As Lee puts it: “This increase is all about retention.”

Daniel Holden, like many erstwhile partner-track associates, is satisfied with the balance he’s achieved. He now practises law in a way that feels right for him. But he’s quick to add that his path is his own. “I would never advocate, as a general rule, that in-house is better than private practice,” he says. “It’s really up to the individual person to figure out what makes them happy.”

What’s most powerful about the current moment is that lawyers now have a larger number of viable career options. “I know that some people have tried to fit themselves into a law firm that really doesn’t line up with their priorities,” says Holden. “That’s a really tough way to go about organizing your life.” And luckily, it’s no longer necessary to make that sacrifice.

This story is from our Summer 2019 Issue.

Illustrations by Sam Island